How to maximize cash back with your credit card

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In a world where the average savings account generates .06 percent in interest, you’re likely to earn a better return by charging on credit cards than stashing your money short term – as long as you pay off those balances as you go. The industry standard for credit card rewards is 1 percent for every dollar spent, but you can double that if you play your cards right. If you’re willing to juggle a few cards at once and put in some extra effort, you can get even more value from your credit cards.

Here’s how to maximize your cash back….

Maximize cash back on everyday expenses

Make sure your default credit card is earning the highest percentage interest your credit score allows. If you have good credit, several cards will get you 1.5 percent cash back on every purchase, including Chase Freedom Unlimited and Capital One Quicksilver Card. Each comes with built-in benefits as well as spending rewards – both of which can add up to more cash in your pocket.

Highest rate you’ll find on a flat-rate card is 2 percent. Citi® Double Cash Card and Fidelity Rewards Visa are examples. Neither comes with annual fees or signup bonus. Fidelity Rewards Visa pays a flat 2 percent on every purchase but requires excellent credit (720 or higher). Citi Double Cash rewards 1 percent when you make purchases, 1 percent when you pay off that purchase and can be had with good credit (above 690). If you pay your balance as you go, the payout won’t make much difference.

Once you have the best default card in place for everyday spending, you can supplement it with a card (or two) that earns maximum rewards for the kind of spending you do an ongoing basis. The key is to find a card that delivers more than 1.5-2 percent per dollar on those spending categories, either with no annual fee or with a fee that pays for itself – and then some.

Maximize cash back on dining

If your job involves lots of dining out, or your idea of the perfect splurge at the end of the week is a four-course meal with a nice bottle of wine, you should have a card that rewards that.

Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card was designed for the foodie, offering unlimited 4 percent cash back on dining and entertainment, 2 percent at grocery stores, and 1 percent on everything else. Savor comes with a $95 annual fee, waived the first year, but offers a $300 cash bonus after you charge $3,000 in the first three months.

Uber Visa targets traveling foodies with unlimited 4 percent cash back on dining, 3 percent on hotel and airfare, and 2 percent on online purchases. Its rewards come as points redeemable for cash at 1 cent/dollar. Uber Visa has no annual fee and offers $100 signup bonus if you spend $500 in 90 days.

You can earn as much as 5 percent cash back on dining with a revolving category card. Discover it® Cash Back, for example, is offering 5 percent on restaurant purchases now through September (July through September 2018) up to the quarterly maximum of $1,500 after you enroll, then 1%. Even better: Discover will Match your rewards after your first year. One problem with revolving category cards is the big rewards only last three months, awards alter year to year, and involve registering each quarter. Complicated.

Maximize cash back on travel

Travel is one of the most popular rewards and something many of us spend a lot on. Card issuers have responded with credit card options to cash in on travel, but the best tend to offer points rather than cash. It’s up to you to do the math and figure out if those points will translate into cash back (or at least saved) for you.

One way to get more out of the Chase Freedom Unlimited card, for example, is to pair it with Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. If you have both, you’re only paying one annual fee. You can opt to redeem your Freedom rewards as a statement credit or turn them into Chase Ultimate Rewards points and use them toward travel.

The cash value of Ultimate Rewards is worth considering. Sapphire Preferred gets you 2x Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent on dining and travel. The Points Guy values those points at 2.1 cents each (twice the industry standard).

If you use those points to book travel through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, they’re worth 25 percent more. Ultimate Rewards can be traded on a 1:1 value with 13 travel partners, including several airlines and hotel chains. If travel is high on your idea of the “ultimate reward,” you’re probably not going to do better – especially since Sapphire Preferred throws in a bunch of card benefits designed for travelers – travel insurance, rental car insurance, no foreign transaction fees – all of which can save you some serious cash in the long run.

Maximize cash back on gas and at grocery stores

These two rewards often go hand in hand, maybe because they’re ongoing expenses for most of us, particularly families. Two cash-back cards stand out in this category.

Bank of America® Cash Rewards credit card offers 2 percent at grocery stores and wholesale clubs and 3 percent on a category of your choice, which includes U.S. gas stations for up to $2,500 each quarter. The Citi Premier℠ Card also offers 3 points per $1 on travel including gas stations – a nice bonus, especially for rewards cards.

Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express charges an annual fee. It’s rarely a good idea to take on an annual fee based on gas rewards, simply because few of us spend enough on gas to make that fee back by the end of the year. The card offers 6 percent cash back at U.S. supermarkets on the first $6,000 spent annually (1 percent after that).

Maximize cash back on big purchases

If you have a big-ticket purchase coming up, have a plan in place to maximize your rewards. Charge a $2,000 computer or sofa on a 1.5 percent cash-back card and you’ll get $30 back. A 2 percent cash-back card will get you $40. Buy from a store that fits a 5 percent revolving category for that quarter and it may jump to $80. Both Discover it® Cash Back and Chase Freedom cap your 5 percent rotating rewards at $1,500 each quarter (enrollment required, then 1%), which means the first $1,500 of a $2,000 purchase earns $75 at 5 percent, the last $500 earns $5.

One way to get more control over 5 percent revolving category rewards is to use the U.S. Bank Cash+™ Visa Signature® Card. Cash+ lets you choose two categories each quarter that earn 5 percent for up to $2,000 in charges. Among your choices each quarter are electronic stores and furniture stores, which helps if you’re planning to buy a computer or furnish a new home. Other 5 percent choices include gyms, restaurants, sporting goods, and department stores.

An even better way to maximize rewards on a big-ticket buy is to apply for a new rewards card and use the purchase to earn a signup bonus. That $2,000 computer purchase, for example, gets you halfway to the signup bonus offered by Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. Charge $4,000 on Sapphire Preferred in the first three months and you score 60,000 Ultimate Rewards points – worth $750 toward travel booked through the Chase rewards portal. That’s on top of the 2,000 you earn on the purchase itself (1 point per $1).

Maximize cash back on monthly bills

Whenever you can, set up autopay on bills to charge to a rewards card – one that maximizes that particular category. Most banks won’t allow you to pay a mortgage or student loans off this way, but you can often pay tuition via credit card. Why have it deducted directly from your bank account when you can make up to 2 percent back via credit card?

Before you do this, check to see if you’ll be charged a service fee for credit card payments. Verizon, for example, offers a $10/month discount if you auto-pay from your checking account, which means you’re essentially paying $10/month to put it on your credit card. If you’re charging $300/month for Fios on your 2 percent cash-back card, the $6 reward is not a net gain.

Whatever reward card or combination of cards you choose, make sure to read the fine print. If you use a credit card outside the country, for example, a 3% foreign transaction fee can wipe out any rewards you earn. Late payment fees and the interest charged for carrying a balance will leave you even more in the hole.

If you want to investigate which cash back credit card might be right for you, check out our page on cash back cards. But choose wisely and pay your cards off in a timely manner and you will be amply rewarded. Also, stay up-to-date with the industry’s top news and strategies for earning cash back. Check out Bankrate’s cash back catalog for everything you need to know to earn the most out of every swipe.

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